Beyond the casino

Prasanth Nandakumar explores the many remnants of Macau’s Portuguese past, and in the process, discovers another side to this popular gambling destination.

Visit: Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral; (below) Senado Square. photos by author

Someone somewhere is always packing a bag to Macau. Someone wants to put his luck to work in a casino. Someone wants to quit his corner office and give career a break. Someone wants to open a new hotel. Someone wants to be entertained until he is bored. Someone wants to shop blindly, ignoring the price tags. And someone suddenly thinks of getting married on an island.

This tiny peninsula at the mouth of Pearl river honours your wishes without any inhibitions. After I touch down at Hong Kong airport, I revive the lost energy. As I walk to the ferry terminal, my mind is busy retrieving all possible stock images of a ferry. Rusty side rails, greasy handle bars and shaky seats. Having grown up in Kerala, that was my idea of a ferry ride. A peek at Cotai Jet, the ferry, and my mind shelves all the retrieved pictures. I am scrambling for words. Oh boy, it looks like a yacht. In fact, it was no less. The 50-minute ride to Macau goes like five minutes. The reason for it is a closely guarded secret at this part of the South China Sea. Here, time travels faster than ferry.

As the ferry nears Macau, you can see glitzy skyscrapers popping out of the horizon. Casinos, casinos and more casinos. This tax-free zone has earned the tag of world’s largest gambling destination. I check into Sheraton Macao Hotel at Sands Cotai Central, an integrated resort, on the Cotai strip. The strip is reclaimed land, which links the islands of Taipa and Coloane, two other islands that are part of Macau. I walk into the Palms Lounge to be greeted by Tahitian dancers with an orchid garland. And so began the pampering. With over 3,800 rooms, spa, pools and a casino, the hotel itself is a destination. After the dine-around experience, savouring roast duck and mandarin with betel leaves and chopped lobster, sea scallops, honey barbecued pork, and a variety of cheesecakes, I beat the retreat.

The next day, after a quick breakfast, I set out to explore the Historic Centre of Macau. As the bus makes its way past contemporary cityscapes along the Pearl river, another face of Macau begins to unfurl. That of an erstwhile colony. This self-styled ‘Las Vegas of Asia’ still retains vestiges of its past as a Portuguese colony.

The tour guide, who speaks English with a tinge of Cantonese, narrates how Portuguese first landed at the coast outside A-Ma Temple in the 16th century. And how the peninsula got its name from Goddess A-Ma, the deity of seafarers.

A UNESCO world heritage site, A-Ma Temple is perched atop a hill. The temple complex has a cluster of small temples dedicated to different deities. I take the winding path up the hill, brushing past the bright red prayer cards hung around a tree. Calmness, laced with the fragrance of incense, knocks me into a spiritual mood. The tour guide was quick to interrupt. “Don’t offer any incense sticks at the temple, because you wouldn’t want a lonely spirit to follow you back home,” he said with a wicked smile.

I tag along with him, and he talks about Stanley Ho, his four wives and 17 children. He says Ho is the wealthiest man in Macau. A short drive from the temple is the Ruins of St Paul’s. A flight of stone steps leads you to the facade of St Paul’s Cathedral. A fire consumed the church in 1865, leaving out the facade. I climb the steps to take a closer look at the Jesuit and Oriental carvings on the facade.

Walk down the alley facing the church and your olfactory senses will guide you to various eat-out joints. The smell of fish oil, pork jerky, sea food and freshly baked tarts hits you from every corner. Relishing the dried pork jerky, which is sweet with a hint of spice, I head to Largo do Senado or the Senado Square. Pastel-coloured Mediterranean buildings and wave-pattern cobbled mosaic flooring cannot escape your attention. Around the corner is the 17th century St Dominic’s Church famous for its main altarpiece. Walk into the crowded bylanes around Senado Square and you find numerous souvenir shops. The black rooster, a beloved symbol of Portugal, is ubiquitous. Sitting by the fountain, I dig my teeth into the creamy Portuguese egg tart, enjoying the cuisine and the colonial architecture at once.

A spot of adventure

Leaving behind the colonial quarters, I proceed to the Macau Tower. Rising to a height of 338 m and hosting one of the highest bungee jumps in the world, the tower throws you a question: do you have it in you? From the observation deck on the 58th floor, you can catch the whole of Macau in a blink. A poster stuck on the glass door at the entrance, by extreme sport company AJ Hackett, reads: “challenging people and gravity since 1986.” After spending some time on the deck, I decide not to challenge gravity.

On the wall you can see the pictures of people who bungee jumped, a prominent few. As I run through the photos, a familiar face strikes me. Anthony Bourdain, the host of culinary programme No Reservations. Bourdain had set aside all his reservations and had taken a plunge.

As I head back to Taipa, shining casinos loom back into the picture. In the night, I go for a walk, along with a few friends I made on the trip, to the Venetian Macau, a prominent casino hotel. You may wonder if it’s possible to have another sky under the sky. Here, they made it happen. The hotel has a blue sky with white clouds on the ceiling. Though it looks very real, it is no match for the ultimate creator’s masterpiece. The canals and gondolas do their best to give you a feel of Venice. Outside the hotel, the canal flows into a painting on the wall. The painting portrays a bridge over the flowing canal in Venice. My friend tells me it is the Bridge of Sighs. It was from there the prisoners would sigh at their final view of Venice before being taken to their cells, he explains. We continue our walk and he describes how he kissed his wife under the bridge on a gondola. For, the Venetian legend says that lovers will be granted eternal love and bliss.

No Macau trip is complete without trying your luck at gambling. With a little dream in mind, I walk into the casino with a clutch of dollars. Like they say, you never know.

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